CHICAGO — “Most people struggle to be present. People go sit in ashrams for 20 years in India trying to be present. Do yoga. Meditate. Trying to get here. Now. Most people live in fear because we project the past into the future. Michael’s a mystic. He was never anywhere else. … His gift was not that he could jump high, run fast, shoot a basketball. His gift was that he was completely present. And that was the separator.”
— Mark Vancil, author of “Rare Air,” discussing Michael Jordan’s psyche during Episode 10 of the ESPN Films documentary series “The Last Dance”
If only life worked like film or fairy tale, with the ability to press stop — or at least pause — when the delight and exhilaration reaches its pinnacle. If only we all had the opportunity to close the back cover and roll the credits at the highest of highs.
Then we’d know exactly what it felt like to be Michael Jordan late on a Sunday night in Salt Lake City in June 1998. We’d know the adrenaline and satisfaction pulsing through Jordan’s veins as he held his right hand in the air, the iconic pose captured from a myriad camera angles.
Each vantage point carries the same artful impact. The moment had been captured forever.
That’s where the finale of “The Last Dance” led us Sunday, to Jordan’s final shot as a Bull, to that 19-foot pull-up jumper near the top of the key, to that frozen image that hangs on the walls of sports bars and home offices and man caves across Chicago.
Poor Bryon Russell, stumbling and then nudged to his left. Poor Jazz fans — the men with hands clasped behind their heads, the women covering their mouths. All that tension becoming Delta Center despair as the pebbled Spalding that Jordan shot splashed through the net with 5.2 seconds left.
So clutch. So storybook. So damn poetic.
All of it frozen in time.
“If that’s the last image of Michael Jordan,” Bob Costas said on the NBC broadcast, “how magnificent is it?”
That final shot had delivered another championship. A sixth championship.
For Jordan, for the Bulls, for their fans, this arguably is the moment of all the impossible-to-count moments.
Every rabid sports city should be lucky enough to sample such invigoration. Every athlete should be so fortunate to experience a triumph even one-thousandth of that magnitude. Every human should be able to find, even for a handful of fleeting moments, that mystical immersion in the now that Jordan seemed blessed with.
In the final minute of his final game with the Bulls, he tapped into his preternatural microfocus. Jordan didn’t stress over Scottie Pippen’s badly wrenched back.
He didn’t fear a three-point deficit on the road with 41.9 seconds left. He didn’t fret over the 20 shots he had missed that night as the needle on his fuel gauge drifted toward “E.”
He just dialed in on each moment, one after another.
The driving layup. The hatchet steal from Karl Malone. The iconic jumper.
The team’s final defensive stop.
The bliss of his last championship.
“I had faith,” Jordan told coach Phil Jackson on the court minutes after the final buzzer. “I had faith. … Every time we were close, I knew we were going to do it.”
The Bulls were in major danger, but all Jordan could see was a path to victory. He was low on energy but full of self-confidence. He was down to his final few grains of sand in an exhausting 14-year odyssey with the Bulls. Yet he remained completely present.
Is it any coincidence that director Jason Hehir accompanied the documentary’s final scene — the one about the Bulls’ emotional coffee-can bonfire — with Pearl Jam’s “Present Tense”?
As Jackson had preached and Jordan had absorbed, the Bulls’ inevitable ending never had to become a debilitating burden. It was simply part of their collective journey, even if it arrived sooner than almost everyone wanted.
Ultimately, that final night in Utah provided a fitting end to the Bulls’ “Last Dance.”
The conquest. The uplifting celebration. The ability, in that moment, to fully appreciate the journey and all of its challenges, learning experiences, struggles and grand rewards.
But was this the way it should have ended? Shouldn’t Jordan, Jackson and Pippen have been given the chance to chase a seventh title together?
Shouldn’t Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and general manager Jerry Krause have bent over backward to offer that opportunity? Shouldn’t they all have had giant wall art of Jordan’s quote from a year earlier, after the Bulls’ fifth championship?
“We’re entitled to defend what we have until we lose it.”
That sentiment should have played on a loop until the kings were unseated.
All these years later, Reinsdorf has tried to explain how the Bulls core was getting older and more expensive, how roster renovations were an immediate must. Reinsdorf says in the documentary that “it would have been suicidal” to overpay for Pippen, Steve Kerr, Dennis Rodman and Ron Harper to stick around. The dynasty, Reinsdorf argues, wasn’t detonated.
“It just came to an end on its own,” he says.
Krause, in an excerpt from his unfinished and unpublished memoir that his family provided to K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago, stresses the team’s physical deterioration, its salary-cap obstacles and the increased pressure that would have been put on Jordan to continue being a miracle worker. Chasing a seventh Larry O’Brien Trophy would have been more demanding than any of the previous six.
Still, Jordan deserved his final word too.
“I felt we could have won seven,” he says. “I really believe that. We may not have. But, man, just to not be able to try, that’s something I just can’t accept. For whatever reason, I just can’t accept it.”
Ten episodes of “The Last Dance” offered a compelling reminder — or perhaps an awakening — as to how much of a struggle the Bulls’ championship pursuits often were. Especially that “Last Dance” in 1997-98. And while that realization has created a profound spike in appreciation for the team’s greatness, for Jordan’s determination and competitive brilliance, it also subtly teases the idea that a different on-court ending might have been brutally unfulfilling.
Sure, Jordan’s elite talent and self-described “win-at-all-costs” mentality provided the ultimate flotation device. His reliability under pressure was the Bulls’ unmatchable advantage. But isn’t it also fair to reason that the undertow of the physical fatigue, of the emotional struggles, of the internal tension within that team would have become too powerful at some point?
Even in a lockout-shortened 1999 season, isn’t it conceivable the Bulls would have been weighed down by an untimely injury or a Rodman meltdown or a draining squabble between Jackson and Krause? Or Pippen and Krause?
Isn’t it easy to imagine a couple of last-minute Jordan shots missing their mark? Isn’t it fathomable that the ’99 Bulls, even with Jordan, could have been taken under by the Magic or Knicks or Pacers or Spurs? And doesn’t the mere idea of that threaten the sweetness of the way it actually ended on the court for Jordan and the Bulls?
As captivating as that seventh-title debate can be, perhaps it’s better to concentrate on what “The Last Dance” brought back to center stage over the past month. The interest in this epic saga rarely was about the events that weren’t but about all the moments that were, about the impressive and adversity-filled rise of a 6-foot-6 guard from North Carolina and the NBA franchise he dared to carry to incomparable heights.
Through that lens, as narrow and glorifying as it may be, perhaps it’s best to land back in that climactic moment in Utah and pause for reflection and appreciation. That valiant final-minute mettle. That iconic jumper. That priceless behind-the-scenes footage of the subsequent hours.
The champagne showers in the locker room and Jordan’s congratulatory meeting with Leonardo DiCaprio. The unfathomable mob scene spilling out of the lobby at the Bulls hotel. The piano inside Jordan’s hotel room that he couldn’t play all that well. Yet no one seemed to care.
“Got another one in ya?” Jordan is asked, presumably about another championship and not another off-tune piano piece.
“Come on, man,” Jordan promptly replies. “It’s the moment. It’s the moment. That Zen Buddhism (expletive). You’ve got to get in the moment and stay here. Just stay in the moment.”
It’s an understandable request. In that moment of all moments, who would ever want to leave?